Why you should care

Because stranger things have happened. Clearly.

I’ve done a lot of small film stuff, including several parts in a Japanese TV show — I’m fluent from the two years I lived there during high school — but nothing of any real notoriety. Not really until I was finishing up my cinema studies degree from San Francisco State University. I had this idea to make a Mad Max-style short about this very real one-armed heroin addict who lived on Clementina Street in San Francisco and had made a prosthetic arm out of football shoulder pads and vacuum cleaner parts.

I pitched him the idea, but I quickly realized that he was going to be a tad difficult to work with. Out of ideas, I sought counsel with my friend Oscar. Oscar had originally inspired me to pursue a career in film. He had a simple but brilliant solution to my problem. I had just recently returned from LA, where I was born (I’m 36 now), with my new Halloween costume — a full, historically accurate Nazi SS officer’s uniform — and he suggested that we make a short about a confused Nazi living in San Francisco. So, Heinrich was born.

He was born at a time when events harmonically converged on the state of California, and there was a recall effort for then Governor Gray Davis. He was successfully recalled, and the Austrian Oak, uber-mensch and Conan-esque Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, was now governor. So the plot played out thusly: After years of living in the jungles of South America, Heinrich sees an ascendant Arnold and believes that a new awakening is upon us, so he hits San Francisco with marching orders to reconstitute the Reich. The Fourth Reich, to be exact.

Chappelle walking in was like God talking, since I figured if anybody could appreciate my humor it was Dave Chappelle.

He gathers a motley crew of characters who he believes are disguised members of the Third Reich, but they are just assorted San Francisco characters: a Black hip-hop artist he believes is Hermann Göring [full disclosure: in a bit turn as a thespian, this is played by OZY editor-at-large Eugene S. Robinson — Eds.], a heaping helping of leather boys who he thinks are his shock troops and his recurring enemy, a Vietnam vet who “fought Nazis like you all over the jungles of Vietnam.”

Hilarity ensues.

I mean, Sacha Baron Cohen was doing Ali G. Or Borat. Or Bruno. And immersive comedy was the thing. Why not Heinrich? I mean, people would “get it,” right?

Sure, there were misunderstandings. Like when we were shooting over at the Holocaust Memorial. We figured at 2 o’clock in the morning we were not likely to upset too many people. But a group of guys starts yelling at us, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS SHIT?!” So my friends Oscar and Samir are like, “Dude, we need to get out of here now.” I said, in character (remember: immersive comedy), “I shall not move! We shall not be moved! We will not be moved from the Rhineland. Or Poland. And we shall not be moved from here. Besides, I think I can take them.”

Oscar calmly looks at me and replies, “Damien, it’s 2 in the morning, we’re at the Holocaust Memorial and you’re dressed up like a Nazi. Whether you can beat these guys in a street fight or not, it’s not going to end up well for us.” I pondered this statement for a moment, then deemed the logic valid. So we left.

Despite signs like this, I held out hopes. Hopes that were rewarded when a friend of mine got a job working security over at Niketown, a low point in his life and a situation I took full advantage of for my own personal amusement. I’d go over pretty much every day to make conversation with him and remind him of his lowered position in life.

Then one day, while we were standing at the entrance, lo and behold, Dave Chappelle and entourage walk in. At this time I really had finished the pilot for what I was now calling Enter the 4th Reich and was shopping it around to agents and agencies. But Chappelle walking in was like God talking, since I figured if anybody could appreciate my humor it was Dave Chappelle. I also knew this was a unique opportunity that would most likely never come again. So I grabbed my phone, which had my pilot on it, and found Chappelle.

He stood there looking at shoes, surrounded by his people and a bunch of gawkers 15 deep.

I walked through the circle directly to him. One of his people tried to step in front of me, but I sidestepped him.

“Mr. Chappelle, I know you’re on vacation and looking at shoes and you don’t want to be bothered or bullshitted, but I have a pilot for a TV show that I think is right up your alley.”

Slowly, he tilted his head toward me, while holding the shoe that he’d been examining. His eyes were super bloodshot and watery. After looking at me for a couple of seconds, he said, “OK …”

So I continued, “Well, it’s about this ambiguously gay Nazi who, after hearing that Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected governor of California, moves from Germany to San Francisco to resurrect National Socialism. And it’s basically about all his daily trials and tribulations. Take a look.”

So Chappelle stood there, staring at me and my phone. With a shoe in his hand. For a grand total of 20 seconds.

“Cool. Peace,” he said, and went back to shoegazing.

I stood there for a moment, then said, “Well, if you like the idea send me an email,” and put my card in his shirt pocket.

I have, surprisingly, yet to hear back from him. But I’m quite sure I will. Any day now.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.